Friday, February 1, 2008

Recycling and Global Warming

“If you want to save the planet from global warming, don’t recycle.”

This statement appeared in a June 2007 edition of TechWorld, the United Kingdom’s premier online magazine for information-technology professionals.

Author, Chris Mellor, argued that the energy costs associated with recycling accelerates global warming with the following points:
· The goods to be recycled have to be collected and transported to the recycling point, expending fuel energy;
· The goods must be “un-manufactured”; more energy is expended;
· And, lastly, “the recovered components have to be collected, sorted, stored and transported to wherever they are going to be re-used, meaning more energy use.”

I was shocked at this hilariously simplistic view.

The argument ignores the idea that consumption of virgin resources has consequences, global warming aside. Annie Leonard, coordinator of the Funders Workgroup for Sustainable Production and Consumption and author of the Story of Stuff, an investigation of the global materials economy, notes that the materials economy is “a system in crisis.” Our “stuff” moves along the following stages: extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and, finally, disposal. “The reason it is in crisis is that it is a linear system and we live on a finite planet and you can not run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely,” Leonard writes.

In the past three decades alone, one-third of the planet’s natural resource base has been depleted, as estimated by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins in Natural Capitalism.

If everybody consumed at United States rates of consumption, the human population would require three to five planets, Leonard attests. But, we’ve only got one.

Recycling paper products allows more trees to remain standing, where they can continue to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The two typical methods for disposal have far-greater negative impacts on our environment than the energy consumed through transport and refining of recyclables.

Incinerators are the single largest sources of dioxin, the most toxic made-made substance known to science, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Lancet, a UK medical journal.

EPA states the greenhouse gas emissions from waste combustion in incinerators are reduced when materials are diverted to recycling.

Landfill materials potentially pollute the air, land, water, and, of course, alter the climate.

The EPA’s website notes that waste prevention and recycling diverts organic wastes from landfills, reducing the release of methane, a greenhouse gas with 21 times the potency of carbon dioxide.

Recycling saves energy. Manufacturing foods from recycled materials typically requires less energy than producing goods from virgin materials. “Recycling aluminum cans, for example, saves 95 percent of the energy required to make the same amount of aluminum from its virgin source, bauxide,” according to EPA figures.

Rutgers’ green purchasing website notes that fibers in fine paper can be recycled up to a dozen times before becoming too short for papermaking. “The impact and value of these repeated savings [of resources, water, energy, and reduced pollution] are much greater than the minimal amount of energy produced when the paper is burned instead.”

In 2005, EPA estimates an annual energy savings of at least 900 trillion BTUs, which equals the amount of energy used to 9 million households annually.

Is recycling really a threat to our climate? Or an asset? I think the latter.

January 27, Rutgers began participation in our third Recyclemania competition, a 10-week national competition with more than 285 colleges and universities to see which campus has the best recycling rates. Each week, Rutgers Facilities will collect, tally, and report information about the amount and composition of collected recyclables. In the coming nine weeks, I encourage you to examine your personal role in sustainability and climate change reduction through recycling. If you want to save the planet from global warming, recycle.